Motherhood, Gangs, And Alcohol: A Qualitative Study

Principal Investigator: Geoffrey Hunt
Co-Principal Investigator: Karen Joe-Laidler
Supported by grants from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and W.T. Grant Foundation (R01 AA11971)

The focus of this 36 month continuation project was to investigate the influence of motherhood on the lifestyles of girl gang members, who were either pregnant or mothers, and to widen and extend our on-going research on homegirls and alcohol consumption. We examined the influences of the process of motherhood (from pregnancy to parenthood) by focusing on: 1) women’s involvement in the gang; 2) their alcohol consumption and drinking practices; and 3) other related high risk behaviors, including drug use, violence and gang related criminal activities. In spite of extensive research on teenage pregnancy and motherhood, research on girl gang members who are either pregnant or have children, is comparatively sparse.

Our initial target was 180 young mothers or pregnant women, which was subsequently augmented with a control group. A total of 350 women were interviewed from three different categories, young gang mothers (136), pregnant gang members (36), and a control group of gang girls (178) who were neither pregnant nor mothers. Adding the control group to the original sample was a useful comparison, which allowed us to compare the trajectory of mothers versus non mothers. Using a methodological strategy which gathered information from respondents over a series of time frames we were able to gain a fuller understanding of pregnancy issues and the process of motherhood. An additional ten follow up interviews were done with selected respondents in order to both test the reliability of the interview process and to gauge the consistency and persistence of behavioral changes that respondents might have initiated as a result of pregnancy and motherhood. In addition, a number of the control group respondents had also had pregnancy experiences though their pregnancies ultimately resulted in miscarriages or abortions.

Participants in the sample included African-Americans (104), Latinas (127) and Asian/Pacific Islanders (104). The ages of pregnant women ranged from 15 to 22 with a median of 18; mothers ranged from 15 to 28 with a median of 20; and control group women ranged from 14 to 25 with a median of 19 years of age.
Our aim was to investigate the effects of the process of motherhood on three types of risk behaviors including gang involvement, alcohol consumption and drinking behaviors, as well as other high risk behaviors like violence, drug use, and crime.

We found that gang activity was reduced during pregnancy, with forty-five percent of our respondents reporting that they still spent some time hanging out with the gang during their pregnancy. However, after becoming mothers, only twenty percent still hung out with their gang. In comparison, the control group women were much less likely to reduce their gang involvement within a similar time frame with fifty-two percent of them still hanging out with their gang. Drinking levels were also reduced when the young women discovered that they were pregnant and some respondents ceased drinking altogether. More than seventy percent became abstinent once pregnant compared to only sixteen percent prior to pregnancy. Drug use similarly declined during pregnancy with abstinence levels rising from twenty-seven percent to seventy-two percent. Although abstinence levels were high during pregnancy, after the births of their children, drinking patterns changed yet again for most of the respondents. Drinking increased slightly once the respondents became mothers but stayed below previous levels of consumption.

All in all our findings indicated that for most young women who had been gang members and involved in multiple risky behaviors, pregnancy and motherhood played a significant role in the process of maturing out of the gang and reducing their risk behaviors. While the precise timing and the specific characteristics of change varied from woman to woman, there were several key factors that facilitated this process. First and foremost was a concern for their children. In addition, the young women often found a new support system when they became pregnant. Finally and we saw a tapering off of unhealthy behaviors, and the adoption of healthier lifestyle choices that women attributed to wanting to create a better life for their baby and for themselves.

Papers from the Motherhood, Gangs, And Alcohol Project

  • Joe-Laidler, K., and Hunt, G. (1997). “Violence and social organization in female gangs.” Social Justice 24 (4): 148-169.
  • Hunt, G., and Joe-Laidler, K. (2001). “Situations of violence in the lives of girl gang members.” Health Care for Women International, 22 (4): 363-384.
  • Schalet, A., Hunt, G., and Joe-Laidler, K. (2003). “Respectability and autonomy: The articulation and meaning of sexuality among the girls in the gang.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 32 (1): 108-143.
  • Hunt, G., and Joe-Laidler, K. (2004). “Alcohol and violence in the lives of gang members.” In F.A. Esbensen, S.G. Tibbetts, and L. Gaines (Eds.), American Youth Gangs at the Millennium, pp. 229-238. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.
  • Hunt, G., Joe-Laidler, K., and MacKenzie, K. (2005). “Moving into motherhood: Gang girls and controlled risk.” Youth & Society, 36 (3): 333-373.